Book Review: 2034: A Novel of the Next World War

Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs, Air University Press --

2034: A Novel of the Next World War, by Elliot Ackerman and James Stavridis. New York: Penguin Press, 2021. 320 pp. ISBN: 9780593298688.

 

James Stavridis is a retired admiral. Elliot Ackerman served in the U.S. Marines and now works as a journalist and novelist. The story they tell begins with three American destroyers on a freedom-of-navigation patrol through the South China Sea in March 2034. This patrol, attempting to help a burning Chinese fishing vessel, boards it. Unknown to the Americans, the Chinese have invented a jamming system that gives them full control over computers within a certain radius. Using this system, the Chinese shut down all computer systems aboard the American ships, jam all communications, and ask for their burning fishing vessel back. The American boarding party refuses to get off the Chinese vessel. So, the Chinese sink two of the American ships and let the third one limp back to the American base in Yokosuka, Japan, to tell the bad news.

Predictably, the USA responds by sending the entire Seventh Fleet into the South China Sea. There, the same computer-interdiction technology successfully cripples the American planes and ships, such that the Chinese sink 37 of the 40 American vessels, including the carriers Gerald R. Ford and Doris Miller.

After some bluster, and a separate Russian attack on underwater data cables, the U.S. president decides to respond by dropping a nuclear bomb on the Chinese city of Zhanjiang, apparently killing 10 million people. (The book does not major on exact casualty figures, because no one knows what city populations will be 13 years from now.) The Chinese escalate by dropping two nuclear bombs, one on San Diego and one on Galveston. The Americans seek to up the ante, with directives to nuke three Chinese cities, including Shanghai.

This, the major plotline, is expertly aligned with subplots involving an Iranian brigadier general, an American fighter pilot who gets interrogated by said Iranian general, a Russian naval detachment that sows chaos by cutting undersea Internet cables, and an Indian American who happens to work in the defense bureaucracy in Washington, but whose uncle is an admiral in the Indian Navy. Thus enters India, much strengthened by Narendra Modi’s reforms and the light touch of the coronavirus pandemic (predictions that seemed much more plausible when I read the book in March than when I reviewed it in May). The Indians successfully broker peace between Washington and Beijing, before those three Chinese cities can be nuked.

As novels go, it is a well-crafted example that tells a gripping story, with appropriately symbolic episodes interspersed between major action sequences. And of course, with both authors having served in active-duty roles for years, the book is strong in its portrayal of military life.

The biggest failing of the yarn Stavridis and Ackerman spin is that it doesn’t adequately sketch the results of some of its biggest plot points. “Anyone who lived through the war could tell you where they were the moment the power went out” (p. 41). Wow! What made this outage so special? I’m not sure; the novelists seem to drop this point and not return to it. They do describe another power outage, some three months later in the book’s timeline: the Russians destroy the sub-Atlantic “10G internet cables that service the United States” (p. 153). The results: “The internet was out across the entire Eastern seaboard. Eighty percent of the connectivity in the Midwest was gone. Connectivity on the West Coast had been reduced by 50%.”

And what’s the upshot? “A nationwide power outage. The airports closed. The markets panicked” (p. 163). Such anodyne narration feels more like a BBC broadcast about yet another African civil war than it feels like living in a superpower fighting a country of equal or greater strength for the first time in almost a century. In other words, the lived experience drops out when the plot’s events are at their most earth-shattering.

The authors’ stated purpose is to help American policymakers envision the human cost of great power war with the People’s Republic of China, and thereby avert the colossal disaster such a war must inevitably be. They chose the right path: rather than trying to talk about the fates of millions, they depict the devastation in the lives of four protagonists, one half-Chinese and the other three Americans. But the fates of these four are more satisfying than distressing. The Chinese character dies, but it’s at the hands of a vindictive, authoritarian Chinese government, not in battle at all. One of the Americans dies while dropping a nuclear weapon on Shanghai (which gets hit, killing another 30 million Chinese, despite attempts to recall the sortie). Other than that, about the only personal loss in the book is when a third main character loses his nasty ex, who happens to be visiting her mother in Galveston at the wrong time. In other words, the human cost remains academic, remote. We’re not exactly reading The Diary of Anne Frank here. The best comparison I can think of is to how Marvel handled Thanos’ snap. What would the world be like if half of humanity vanished in an instant? Marvel’s answer is “Honestly, it would be about the same. Let’s get back to the action.”

In the same way, how does nuclear war affect our main characters? Hardly at all, apparently. The most telling detail that really captures something of the lived experience comes toward the end of the book, when a character wonders whether he’ll be able to buy toothpaste when visiting the USA.

To be fair, a 300-page novel has no room for sketching on a continent-sized canvas. But the “refugee camps” feel all too imaginary.

The second major weakness of Stavridis and Ackerman’s work is that by the end, it’s allowed the reader to forget what started the whole mess. “In my beginning is my end,” intoned T.S. Eliot in the spring of 1940.1 Yet the beginning – a misguided U.S. operation in the South China Sea exploited by China as a casus belli—has dropped out by the end. The reader is left thinking “Go India! Poor Shanghai, nuked by accident!,” but not, “If only someone in Washington would stop ordering freedom-of-navigation patrols near the accursed Spratly Islands!”

We know “what mighty contests rise from trivial things.”2 Yet the book makes no effort to focus on being more careful about the trivial things. To this reader, at least, one of 2034’s much bigger emphases was the need to keep some dumb bombs, dumb navigation equipment, and dumb warplanes around so that future wars can’t be won entirely by computer jamming tech. That may be a valid point. But in the end, any recommendations about weapons design miss the larger point that it’s not only superior weapons leading to power imbalances that cause wars. Conflicts start over territorial incursions and even perceived slights. Warehouses full of dumb bombs can’t lower the human cost of geopolitical posturing in disputed territories.

Despite these literary weaknesses, 2034 retains significant merit. Its point is really best summed up by a quatrain from Robert Frost, titled “U.S. 1946 King’s X”:

Having invented a new Holocaust,

And been the first with it to win a war,

How they make haste to cry with fingers crossed,

King’s X—no fairs to use it anymore!3

 

Time out—nuclear war is no fair! That’s the book’s message. In saying it, Stavridis and Ackerman are on solid moral ground. And the warning they give against the “new Holocaust” is well-crafted. One hopes that American policymakers (including readers of this journal) will take it to heart.

 

Caleb Nelson

 

 

1 “East Coker,” line 1, in T.S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays 1909-1950 (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1950), 123.

2 “The Rape of the Lock,” Canto 1, line 1, in Alexander Pope, The Works of Alexander Pope (London: Wordsworth Editions, 1995), 87.

3 In Edward Lathem, ed., The Complete Poetry of Robert Frost (New York: Henry Holt, 1979), 399.

 
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